Shooting grief

February 1, 2013 

NPR's The Picture Show had a great piece earlier this week about what it feels like to be photographed amid tragedy, centered around a photo of Aline Marie praying in Newtown, Conn., on the day of that horrific school shooting.

The story prompted another interesting look at photojournalism ethics and how they intersect with the current media landscape by National Press Photographers Association President Sean D. Elliot, who was also in Newtown.

The discussion reminded me of an exchange I had with a reader in October 2010 after a nasty three-vehicle wreck on Highway 124 near Burbank that killed 31-year-old Jeremy Horat. The reader was upset with our publication of this photo from the scene of Horat's grieving relatives:

The reader's emails are bold while my responses are in italics.

As a reader of the Herald I'd like you to know how disgusted I am with your photo choice for the story on the vehicle crash in Burbank.

Can you please explain how you deemed it appropriate to run a photo of family members at the accident site clearly in shock and grieving? It baffles me that you found it acceptable to run such a photo in a community of this size. The photo captures a personal moment between a grieving family (one obviously a young child). This isn't a photo taken at a distance either. It's up close and personal.

I hope there was at least a discussion as to whether this photo should run. Although, if there was and this was the decision that was made I'm not sure that speaks too well to your news judgment. Maybe show your readers and the subjects of your stories the same courtesies you would want in such a horrible situation. I can't imagine you'd want your grief on display in such a manner. I don't know any of the individuals involved in this incident, but I'm sure anyone with a bit of empathy would have been disturbed by this photo.

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Thanks for taking the time to write in. Yours is not an uncommon reaction to photos like this and I wrote at length about the reasons behind publishing images of grief after last summer's drowning at Schlagel Park in Pasco and the backlash from running a photo of the grieving mother.

You can read about it here if you're interested: http://www.tri-cityherald.com/2009/08/06/673548/a-mothers-grief.html

The photograph you're referring to was made with a telephoto lens, specifically a 70-200mm with a 1.4x teleconverter on it at its max focal length. After factoring in the 1.3x crop factor of the camera's sensor, it's around 300mm. I don't know if that means anything to you, but I assure you, I wasn't right in their face. After making the photo, I talked briefly with the family and gave them my business card. I'd assume that if they were as upset as you are, they would have contacted me as well.

It's interesting that it's always people who aren't related to the grieving subjects who write in to complain. In a way, that's the emotional reaction I hope my photographs can elicit. For you to feel for the people in the photo without knowing them speaks to the power that a still, two-dimensional image can have on its viewer.

The point of publishing a photo like this is to help tell the tragedy of the story. Jeremy Horat isn't just the name of a guy killed in a horrific accident, he's a person who is loved and will be missed. The fact that you, and I'm sure many others, reacted in this way means that it made you stop and think about it, and my hope is that at least a few people who frequent Highway 124 will remember the emotional impact this accident had and will slow down or drive more attentively. If there's one selfish reason for wanting to the run the photo, it's in the hope that these tragedies don't happen anymore. If you think it's tough to look at the photo, try being there.

You wrote that it baffled you that we found it acceptable to run a photo like this in a community this size. It baffles me, based on your argument, that you believe the people in a larger community shouldn't be afforded the same "courtesies" you believe Jeremy's family deserved.

Anyway, I do appreciate you taking the time to voice your opinion in a polite and coherent manner. I don't assume I'll totally change your opinion, but I hope I have at least explained my perspective adequately.

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When I said your photo was up close and personal, I didn't mean you were literally right in their faces. But a telephoto lens allows the viewer to be far too up close in such an intimate moment. To be able to clearly make out the woman's facial expressions is too much. I understand you have a job to do and I saw many other photos you took that would have been much more appropriate to run.

When you handed the family your business card did you tell them you had taken such a photo? Years ago my parents happened to drive upon a car accident in which my grandparents were both killed. They had no idea there had been an accident and had been shocked and horrified to see what had happened. I can guarantee the priority in that moment is not to contact the reporter or photographer that was at the scene. If you think the family didn't contact you because they didn't have any concerns then it's because you can't begin to imagine what it's like to be in that moment.

That incident occurred over 25 years ago. And my family was very upset by the photos that were run. I find it hard to believe that this family will not at all be bothered by that photo. How could they possibly be comfortable with seeing a photo that forces them to relive such a moment. Family members don't contact you because their family member just died and they have bigger issues to deal with. They might not even see the photo until days later.

It's your job to use discretion and good judgment, not the family's.

Your job isn't too try and find the most emotional photo so these sorts of things don't happen. Your job is to depict through photos what happened. You're essentially saying its okay to use grieving family members to try and prevent future accidents. I wonder where you would draw the line? What would be inappropriate in your mind? It shouldn't be your place to decide to use another's tragedy for any sort of purpose.

If you think it's tough being there, try being the one who lost a family member and now has intimate photos of their grief on display for the entire area to see. My whole point is that you clearly don't understand what it's like to "be there" as a grieving family member or you wouldn't run these photo.

My point regarding community size is that there are many people that likely know the deceased or the family. It is the job of the newspaper to take these things into account. My education is in journalism school and classes always stress the importance of weighing a variety of considerations before running these sort of photos.

My strong reaction is simply a reflection of the absolute inappropriateness of running this photo, nothing else. To try and twist strong response from readers into support of your twisted logic is wrong.

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You bring up a valid point as far as this family contacting me so soon. The grief and logistics of handling the death of a family member are unimaginable and the local newspaper's coverage would understandably take a back seat to everything else going on.

I still contend, despite your assertions otherwise, that the emotional reaction readers see and empathize with is still the starting spark of angry complaints.

In this particular case, they did see me photographing them and it should be pretty clear in the published image that the man in the sunglasses is looking right at me. The woman in the photo also saw me photographing the scene and went back to her embrace. I do my best to read each scene as it develops and the last thing I want to do is make a situation worse. If seeing me photographing them stirred up a separate response and they turned away from me, I wouldn't push the issue and pursue capturing an emotion that I had tainted.

After they finished their moment and went back to talking is when I felt it was OK to approach and talk briefly with them. I offered my condolences, my card and asked if I could get the victim's name, which the police hadn't officially released to us. They were understandably frazzled, but helped me in that regard and I left them alone after that. No video camera in the face "How does this make you feel?" nonsense.

Covering tragedies like these is more than just serving as the historical record of what happened. These stories help point out problem areas for traffic accidents and drownings and help raise awareness in the hope that future tragedies can be prevented. It's a basic tenet of community journalism. I'd be willing to bet that people who go through these horrific events wouldn't wish a similar tragedy to befall anybody else.

I'm definitely not a seasoned veteran, but in my roughly three years, I've covered my fair share of tragedy. Ones in which the clear emotional impact can be seen resonate deeper. It's my job to help tell the story the best I can through my photographs and if I can convey that emotional impact through a silent flat representation of the scene, then I've done my job. Life isn't always fun and it isn't always pretty. I'm curious which photos in the gallery you felt would tell this story of death and tragedy better.

Your argument that community size is a factor is illogical, however. According to you, if, for example, the average person knows 100 people in his or her community, the relative percentage of readers in a newspaper's circulation who know the victim should be factored in decisions to publish photos of his or her grief. That makes no sense. Ditto your argument that being able to see her facial expression is what makes the photo inappropriate. Seeing emotion and being able to empathize without personally knowing the subject is what makes a strong photo.

As I wrote before, yours is not an uncommon reaction. What is uncommon is for this reaction to come from somebody who studied journalism. It does seem, however, that we'll have to agree to disagree on this point. If you're interested, I've written other columns about covering tragedy:

http://www.tri-cityherald.com/2010/08/05/1120477/wading-through-grief.html
http://www.tri-cityherald.com/2010/05/20/1022690/walking-the-line.html
http://www.tri-cityherald.com/2010/02/18/907354/capturing-death.html
http://www.tri-cityherald.com/2009/10/08/747216/on-the-spot.html
http://www.tri-cityherald.com/2009/01/29/462162/tough.html

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My point regarding community size is that in smaller areas a higher percentage of people are likely to know the victim and/or the family. For example, newspapers routinely run horrific photos of victims from conflicts occurring thousands of miles away. (The Balkans war, gassing of the Kurds in Iraq, etc.) This is generally viewed as acceptable because no one in the United States is likely to know the person depicted. Nor is anyone here really involved in the conflict. It's a matter of distance. Conversely, if a family is murdered in Pasco I'm pretty sure the Herald wouldn't run gruesome crime scene photos that are on par with war photos. My point is that sometimes it's acceptable, and sometimes it isn't depending on various factors, community size being one of them. Other factors involve whether or not the identity of the photo subject is clear, how "gruesome" it is, etc.

That point also goes to my comment regarding the clarity of the woman's face in your photo. I understand that can have an impact upon the emotional impact of a photo. However, it should also be a factor a responsible newspaper takes into account. When her facial features are clearly shown, her identity is clearly revealed, you have encroached on her privacy in a manner that a photo from a greater distance wouldn't have. I'm sure you're a good enough photographer to be able to capture "grief" in a way that does not so clearly put the relatives on display.

These are the sorts of issues that are discussed by journalists. Certainly not every journalist would find this photo acceptable, or your other photo of the mother whose child drowned. I think anybody who has studied journalism or worked as a reporter would react even more strongly because it's up to everyone of those people to be a responsible reporter. Just because you can print the photo, doesn't mean you should. Just because it may be the most "emotional" photo, doesn't mean you should use it.

Not to criticize your work, but after looking through the gallery it was clear you are capable of taking a much better photo then the one of the family. In my opinion, there was nothing photographically or artistically special about it. It was just a crying family. Your photos of the helicopter taking off, and of the shattered windshield were much better photographs in my opinion and equally capable of "telling the story."


I don't in any way mean to imply your intentions are bad. I simply believe you have to counter doing your job with respecting the privacy of the family and the situation they've just been thrust into. Too be frank the possibility of that photo helping to prevent future accidents because of it's emotional impact is likely nearly negligible. Therefore, it's not worth making the entire community a voyeur to one family's grief. I only wish the Herald would be a bit more sensitive to these families. They've suffered enough, they don't need to be shown in the newspaper in the midst of what is likely the worst moment of their life. I don't care how great of a photo it may be.

I appreciate you taking the time to respond. I hope you will at least consider some of what I've said and perhaps in the future the Herald will conduct a thoughtful discussion before these sorts of photos are run. I understand you have a difficult job to do, and I hope you don't simply dismiss what I've said. I know newspapers get a lot of undeserved criticism regarding these sorts of sensitive issues. But in this case I think the outraged community tends to be right.

I let the conversation end there, but as I reread these saved emails in light of the recent discussions about photojournalism ethics, my position hasn't changed. Was the New York Post cover photo of Ki-Suk Han's impending death on the subway tracks any less distasteful or horrific because a smaller percentage of people who viewed it were likely to know him or his family? What about Aline Marie's attempt at a private moment amid the chaotic media swarm?

There aren't any right answers here, but that's the fascinating/maddening nature of ethics debates. Looking back a couple years later, I don't think I would act any differently at a similar scene these days. There are plenty of spot news situations where somebody is obviously unapproachable and others where reaching out is easy. Unfortunately, it's never as easy as second-guessing somebody's actions in a vacuum. In this case, I wanted to identify the victim and figure out this group's relationship to him, not bother the three of them with the spellings of their names, ages and where they live.

This reader didn't change my mind, but the message did resonate with me. I don't remember ever being so naive as to think my actions and published photographs wouldn't elicit this sort of reaction and it was refreshing to engage somebody on a sensitive, personal subject without devolving into emotional, knee-jerk accusations. It's a tone that's far too rare these days, given the heated, oversimplified and rudderless debates over the host of topics dominating national discussion and one I was glad to see in NPR's piece.

In more intense and current news...

Check out this intense set of photos from the front lines of Damascus by certified badass Goran Tomasevic. Woof is all I can say.

On the flip side of danger, violence and destruction is this feature on New York Times photographer Andrea Mohin, who specializes in dance photography.

And what happens when a photojournalist is on the receiving end of some bad breaking news? Statesman Journal photographer Thomas Patterson brought his Hasselblad to his childhood home after it burned down last month.

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kyau@tricityherald.com
(509) 585-7205
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